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Protected Classes – Who are they?

Most employers have heard of the classes that are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act – race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. But many employers aren’t aware that there are other federal and state laws that create protected classes, and that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and courts around the nation have the power to expand the definitions of these classes.

For instance, in a landmark ruling last month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited under the Civil Rights Act because it falls under the definition of “sex.”

So, what does this mean for employers?
• This ruling only affects Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, but it makes it more likely that courts across the country will start interpreting sex to include sexual orientation. It also makes it more likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case on the topic and establish nationwide law.

• Illinois and Wisconsin already have state laws that create employment protections based on sexual orientation, so there are no new action items for employers in those states, unless of course they weren’t aware of those state laws.

• Employers in Indiana should ensure that their policies and practices do not allow for discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Interestingly, the EEOC has interpreted sex to include sexual orientation and gender identity for several years, hence our longstanding advice that employers treat those as protected classes. The HR Support Center has everything you need to stay on top of this issue at both the state and federal level, and we’ll keep you informed when new laws require employer action.

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